“Based on a true story...” These are familiar words to any fan of horror films (or even dabblers in the occasional Halloween scare). A few recent, big–name horror flicks that make this boast are The Conjuring and The Strangers, as does the ever–prolific The Exorcist. Most of these “true stories” are unique instances of terror and oddities that happen to different people by different people. There is, however, one true story that has roots in a number of classic horror films, even propagating its own breed of horror tropes. The story is about Ed Gein.
Edward Theodore Gein (1906—1984) was born and raised in Wisconsin. His family consisted of his father, George Gein; his mother, Augusta Gein; and his older brother, Henry Gein. Augusta was deeply religious and structured her children’s lives around her own ideals, actively repelling outside influences that might taint her sons. As a result of this isolated upbringing, Ed himself found very little companionship outside of his immediate family, and thus became increasingly more alone with their successive passing. Augusta was the last one to pass in 1945. Ed made ends meet by doing odd jobs around his hometown, where he was well–known and well–liked with a reliable reputation. That changed in 1957, when Ed’s property was searched following the disappearance of hardware store owner Bernice Worden. Worden’s body was discovered in Ed’s shed, and a collection of gruesome accoutrements were found in Ed’s house. These included various pieces of effeminate clothing and masks made from human skin. Ed revealed to authorities that he had exhumed multiple bodies from three local graveyards to create his apparatus, particularly targeting bodies of women whom he thought looked like his late mother.
Since Gein’s story broke in 1957, the horror film industry has embraced it with open arms. The carnage found in his home visually shocks audiences. More than just gore though, Gein’s irrational allegiance to his mother in response to her suffocation of Gein’s non–familial interpersonal life is a feeling not necessarily foreign to a wider audience. A parent’s influence on their child is extensive, be it through passing down religious ideals, morals, or career choices. Gein’s intense loneliness after his mother’s death was a product of her parenting: Augusta’s own hatred for the immorality of everybody but herself was passed onto Ed as a fear of everybody but Augusta. In his unsocialized adult life, Ed found release in violence and a search for his mother in corpses of middle–aged women. This obsessive mother–child relationship between Augusta and Ed takes parental control to a whole other level. Gein’s bodysuits of skin were meant to be worn to emulate his being with his mother.
In naming films, Gein’s impact on the horror industry has been unquestionably vast: Psycho (1960), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs, and almost all their sequels and spinoffs exhibit and claim inspiration from Gein.
Psycho (1960) takes on Gein from a psychological front. It explores Gein’s unwavering devotion to Augusta through Norman Bate’s devotion to his own mother, although undoubtedly in a less visually–grisly manner. Psycho doesn’t display gratuitously gory shots of clothing made from human skin. Rather, it centers its thrill on tension and uncertainty in a mystery that portrays a Bates as both himself and his mother in his split–personality shock over her death, resulting in Psycho portraying a skewed mental portrait of Gein.
The Silence of the Lambs also explores Gein’s psychological state, but through Buffalo Bill. Rather than focusing on Gein’s attachment to his mother, The Silence of the Lambs presents Buffalo Bill as a man who desperately wants to become a woman; so desperately that he kidnaps women for their skin. Buffalo Bill’s desires to create a “woman bodysuit” are almost directly lifted from Gein’s own crimes, and this movie creates another fictional portrayal of Gein hyper–focused on one particular aspect of his person. But again, gore is not the main contributor to the horror of The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, even Gein’s influence through Buffalo Bill is not what makes this movie horrifying: it’s Hannibal Lecter’s piercing intuition and Starling’s perseverance in the face of danger and her own potential immorality that draw the viewer in.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the movie with all of Gein’s gore. Gein’s masks of human skin are given visual representation and significance in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with its main antagonist, Leatherface. Leatherface wears different masks throughout the film, several of which are of women’s faces. These female masks explore, just as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs do, Gein’s desire to become/create a woman. Leatherface’s dedication to his family is, like Bate’s dedication to his mother in Psycho, a fictional display of Gein’s devotion to Augusta. Despite Leatherface’s lack of personality under his masks, his character embodies the most aspects of Gein’s person of the characters in these three films, for better or for worse.
Each of these horror films are influential to the genre in their own rights, advancing common horror tropes fans nowadays are familiar with and bringing controversial shots into the limelight. With this influence comes a background steeped in the story of a real–life criminal; whatever these films are remembered for also engrain Ed Gein’s impact into the horror film culture. Maybe you’ll even catch some references to Gein in your next on–screen thrill?